Pittsburgh’s New Immigrants: Tough as nails, Vu finds home, career in Pittsburgh



Binh Vu is a pioneer in a business that is now synonymous with Vietnamese immigrants.

She operates a beauty salon and cosmetic nail business, B&T Salon & Spa, Downtown, employing as many as eight people at a time, and during the past 21 years, she has found herself becoming a Pittsburgher.

"This is a beautiful city with a great landscape," she said in a recent interview. "People are friendly. There is less competition, and the income is steady."

Ms. Vu is part of a 40-year-old tradition in America that began when the first Vietnamese immigrants arrived in California after the Vietnam War ended in 1973. Some of the women in those families learned how to apply artificial nails as a way of helping support their families and then got a big boost from actress Tippi Hedren (star of "The Birds"), who volunteered as a relief worker and helped teach manicuring to Vietnamese women in one of California's refugee camps.

Today, Nails magazine estimates that 45 percent of manicurists in the U.S. are of Vietnamese heritage, and they are so dominant that the magazine publishes a Vietnamese-language edition.

Ms. Vu's journey to Pittsburgh began in 1979, when conflict broke out between Vietnam and China and the Communist government in Vietnam shut down many Chinese-owned businesses.

During the conflict, 250,000 Hoa people, the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam, fled the country and sought refuge in China, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries. In 1980, Ms. Vu, with her father and two brothers, was part of this mass exodus, leaving behind her mother and two sisters.

They left with the Chinese because at the time it was the only way to get out of the country. Vietnam had been thrown into depression by military conflict with Cambodia, depleted rice production after collectivization of farms and a U.S. trade embargo.

"At that time, jobs were scarce, and educational opportunities were limited. I didn't really choose to leave but just followed my dad. My parents wanted their children to have a better future in this country."

Because she had grown up in Haiphong, a port city in northern Vietnam, Ms. Vu said her escape was easier than for those from the south. "Because we were with the Chinese, we were not rejected by the Hong Kong government or harassed by Thai pirates, which was the case for those fleeing from the south," she said. Ms. Vu is one of the few immigrants from northern Vietnam in Pittsburgh. As a result, she doesn't have many connections with the larger Vietnamese community here, the majority of whom are from southern Vietnam.

Ms. Vu spent a year in Hong Kong to get her papers ready and arrived in California in 1981. From there, at 17, she moved to Texas to reunite with her large family, which had been in the United States since 1975 and sponsored her U.S citizenship.

She attended high school for a year and then enrolled at San Antonio Beauty College to become a beauty therapist.

The industry had captivated her since she was a teen. "When I was 14, I had my first perm, and I fell in love with all of this beautifying work right away," she said. "I paid 15 dong [about $4 in 1973] for that hair perm while my sister, however hard she worked, could only make 3 dong [$1.30] per day. That's when I realized that this business would be a much easier way of making a living compared to some other occupations."

Working as a waitress and bartender at night while attending classes during the day, Ms. Vu put herself through the one-year beauty college course and graduated with an operator's license, which allowed her not only to do hair and nails but makeup and skin care services.

"At that time, the relationship between Vietnam and America had not been normalized, so once we left the country, we were considered political dissidents. I tried so hard here in this new country partly because I thought I could never go back to my old country," she said.

Ms. Vu moved to Pittsburgh in 1993 and said she became the first Vietnamese immigrant to open a nail salon: B&T Nail Design on Penn Avenue in East Liberty. "It may be hard to picture, but in the early '90s, nails used to be exclusively reserved for movie stars and celebrities. Ordinary women couldn't afford it and were not even familiar with the idea. Of 30 to 40 women I talked to, probably only one of them agreed to let me do her nails."

She also had to locate and train other Vietnamese women, many of whom were baby sitters or housekeepers, to work at her salon. "I would go to those Asian markets in town and befriend the Vietnamese women who were shopping there. They were skeptical at first since doing nails was still a foreign concept to them, but some decided to try it out because it paid better," she said.

She said she will only hire licensed cosmetologists, and "I keep telling my employees to be polite and friendly to our clients because that's what makes them return," Ms. Vu said.

None of her employees have been undocumented immigrants. "Half of them are Americans, and half are Vietnamese-Americans who have been in the States at least 20 years with U.S citizenship," Ms. Vu said.

The salon serves all kinds of customers: Young girls in shorts and cropped tops walk in asking for glitter nails, while middle-aged women stop by during lunch breaks for a massage or an eyebrow wax.

Her staff of as many as eight puts her in a larger category that only about 5 percent of nail salons in the U.S. occupy, according to Nails magazine's industry statistics.

While she employs only one male Vietnamese pedicurist, she estimated that half the pedicurists in Pittsburgh are men.

One of the male pedicurists said in a recent interview that the business can provide a good living.

"You can make around $100 per week being a beginner and more than $100 per day once you are used to your job," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "Especially if your English is good and the clients like you and ask for you specifically, your weekly income can range from $600 to $1,000 per week."

Ms. Vu said she gets furniture and tools for her business from Vietnamese companies because "I still want to support Vietnam's merchandise and exports."

She opened her Downtown location near Fifth and Wood avenues in 2010, leaving her first salon in East Liberty to her younger brother.

The growth of Ms. Vu's business reflects a recent trend in the nail industry, which hit a record $7.47 billion in revenues in 2013 and is projected to grow 16 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Technology has reduced the time it takes to do a nail job from 2½ hours to about 45 minutes, making it more convenient for customers. This steady growth, coupled with its dominance by Vietnamese immigrants, suggests the nail industry will remain a major gateway for Vietnamese-Americans to enter the middle class.

In Ms. Vu's case, it enabled her to sponsor her sisters for emigration to the U.S., after which they moved to Canada where they also work in the nail business, and to afford regular trips to Vietnam to see her mother.

"When I decided to go into this beauty business, which was at a very early stage of its development, everyone was telling me that we Vietnamese could not and would not succeed at beautifying Americans, but I believed that I could prove the impossible with my own hands," Ms. Vu said.


Phuong Tran: ptran@post-gazette.com

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